Land, Labor and the State

March 3, 2013


Dissolution of the Monasteries

I have just finished reading Wolf Hall, a smart historical novel by Hilary Mantel, which portrays the machinations behind Henry VIII’s attempt to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could free himself to marry Ann Boleyn. The central figure in this drama is Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the annulment by passing the Act of Supremacy, making Henry head of the Church of England and severing the English Church from Rome. To supply Henry’s insatiable desire for funds Cromwell used the authority of the Act of Supremacy to dissolve the monasteries and channel their enormous wealth to the crown. Cromwell is portrayed very sympathetically, justifying the dissolution of the monasteries as simply an attempt to regain revenue that had been improperly diverted from royal resources.

However, the truth is that the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in the outright confiscation of approximately one fifth of the cultivable land of England. This land was either given away to royal favorites or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who subsequently expelled the tenants and consolidated their holdings. This created a huge mass of landless peasants and eliminated the principal source of funding for charitable support of the poor and infirm. The Tudors then had the chutzpah to fill the void with its own Poor Laws at the expense of the hapless taxpayer and with even more burdensome controls on the poor.

The Tudors followed this up with additional appropriations through the enclosure of the commons, and those peasants not subject to enclosure were subject to extortionate rents and arbitrary fines, which often resulted in their being driven off the land for inability to pay. These episodes were far from being unique. In his book, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Kevin Carson documents numerous other successful attempts to seize land from the English laboring classes, particularly during the Interregnum (1649-1660), the Restoration Parliament (1661-1679) and after the Glorious Revolution (1688) . Even after the expropriations of the Tudor and Stuart periods, the dispossession of the peasantry continued.

In brief, the state stole the land from the working classes turning them into landless wage laborers, and then prevented workers from moving about in search of higher wages or organizing to increase their bargaining power. In addition, it deliberately blocked attempts by laborers to obtain a measure of independence. For example, through the Game Laws the state attempted to restrict hunting, an important source of food for the laboring classes, and at times, it even prohibited spinning and weaving in individual cottages. No wonder that, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, laborers could be employed for subsistence wages.

The horrors of English industrial life in the 19th century fed the demand for intervention by the state to ameliorate the inhuman conditions of life under ‘free market capitalism’, a state that never existed in England. These inhuman conditions were, on the contrary, due to the state’s expropriation of land from the peasantry. As Albert Jay Nock noted, the factory system and the Industrial Revolution did not create hordes of miserable beings. When the factory system came in, those hordes were already there and they went into the mills. Their misery and degradation did not lie at the door of the free market but at the door of the state.


“Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression, and by aggression.”  Herbert Spencer

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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17 Comments on “Land, Labor and the State”

  1. Evans Tang Says:

    Great post! To be honest, my knowledge of Henry VIII came from watching the film adaptation of the historical fiction novel “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory haha.

    Great intellectual post as usual, bringing insight and truth about the onset of the English industrial age. Lewis Mumford viewed the invention of the Clock as a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of England, seems like the Government helped too by forcing her people into poverty, so that they could be employed by the factories as cheap labour.


  2. ChrisN Says:

    Malcolm, thanks for the history lesson. I’ve been reading a bit about John Locke’s England and this lines right up with the times.

    For what it’s worth, some the worst poverty I’ve seen has been that of landless laborers. I imagine slavery is worse, those who have no land, no wages, and no ownership of their own labor or even bodies.

    Displaced people in a refugee camp, too, are reduced to handouts, foraging if they can, while living in limbo beyond laws.

    ***A Grey Poupon ad came up at the bottom of the post, which was slightly humorous.


  3. Dr. Alice Shaw Says:

    Interesting…thanks for posting this.



  4. sally1137 Says:

    Well said. May I reblog this at my book club blog?


  5. Argus Says:

    The good thing about being in the Great Democratic West is that there are no limitations of movement. Okaaaaay, before long a passport may cost a king’s ransom and you may need it stamped by six hundred and fifteen different agencies at different ends of the nation, but you are free to leave at any time—so long as you don’t take anything of value out of the country, and no more than ten dollars/pounds/grotniks a day for while you are away. Make sure your vaccination certificates are up to date and all fifty-seven different varieties of boosters are done too; and make sure you are fully au fait with the List of Prohibited Destinations or you may have a lot of explaining to big men in suits when you get home. Have a nice trip!
    (How on earth did the monasteries get rich when rich men can’t fit through the eyes of needles in heaven?) (Oops … I don’t wanna know.)


  6. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I enjoyed reading your post. It brought back memories of learning about Henry the great ‘pirate’ whilst at school. I love history. I always felt how Anne Boleyn was portrayed was truly for propaganda purposes. I read a great book about her by; Joanna Denny. Very insightful. Henry was a shrewd and power hungry man who got what he wanted, however he wanted it. He just had the right people at his disposal, literally. Dissolution wasn’t so much about church corruption, although they were corrupt and wealthy while the people surrounding the monasteries starved; it was about Henry’s need to be the centre of the universe and again, get what he wanted. The Industrial Revolution was indeed a harsh period of time, progress for the UK though at all costs! Yet people endured it as they were more free and received higher wages than as peasants working the fields. Many Southerners came to the North to increase their wages, but at a cost to their overall health and well-being. Children deaths were horrendous in the cotton mills.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Bex. The point of the post was to draw attention to the fact that conditions in the mills would have been much better if they had to compete for labor with a landowning peasantry that could always walk away from the job and return to the land. By dispossessing peasants of their land the state was responsible for creating a lumpenproletariat that had no choice but to accept the conditions offered.


  7. campfirememories Says:

    Great point! I see parallels in US history, because ‘we the people’ have allowed our government to do the same. I drove coast to coast a few months ago, something I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. Gone are all the small farms of memory across Illinois, Wisconsin and especially Minnesota. Most people live along the coasts, the government is our largest landowner, (and growing), and we are increasingly slaves to wage labor. I’d vote for you in 2016, Malcom.


  8. jessemathewson Says:

    Reblogged this on Jesse Talks Back and commented:
    Voluntary interaction each to their own and no more is necessary then what they need. Work with our hands, and we can change it all.


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